This was intended to be my first post when I launched my blog. As I began writing, though, I was overwhelmed with the idea. My apprehension came because this is just too important to mess up, too important to do half-heartedly. But today, I’m writing for those of you who, like me, are still overwhelmed sometimes with the Science of Reading. I’m writing for those of you who have heard of it, but are in a place where you feel like you can’t ask questions. I’m writing for anyone who is always striving to do better for their students, but you just don’t know where to start. If you are reading these words, then I’m writing for you.
What is the Science of Reading?
“Oh this again. First it was phonics, then it was whole word. Balanced literacy, Structured Literacy. Everything old eventually becomes new again.” Sound familiar? As the Science of Reading begins to gain more traction, this is the kind of discourse you hear. Some think that everything has already been said and we are just wrapping old arguments up in shiny new paper. It’s important to understand, though, that the argument for the Science of Reading and Structured Literacy (an instructional format based off that science) is not just a revised mashup of the Reading Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. This is more than that, and it isn’t going away.
The Science of Reading is a body of research from the past several decades that gives us insight into how we learn to read. This is 30+ years of research, friends. The research has been around longer than I have, and yet we still have a huge problem—it’s not making it into preservice programs and then into classroom practice. I was 31 years old with two master’s degrees when I first heard the words “Science of Reading.” It’s time we change the narrative and make it known that the Science of Reading is not a fad, a program, or an old package with a shiny new bow. This is hard evidence that can help us eliminate a significant portion of reading difficulties. Indeed, Kilpatrick (2015) tells us that “intervention researchers estimate that if the best prevention and intervention approaches were widely used, the percentage of elementary school students reading below a basic level would be about 5% rather than the current 30-34%”(p.288).
The Simple View and Scarborough’s Reading Rope
I’m not going to explore all the different scientific research here. Because there is so much research, going through it all would be a book and not a blog post anyone could read in one setting. Instead, I want to share a few theoretical models supported by that research that help us understand how we learn to read. The Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope offers a simple, powerful way of thinking about reading. Both of these models are easy to understand and can clarify the intricate process that is learning to read.
I’m not a math girl. However, one basic multiplication problem changed my understanding of reading. The Simple View of Reading was put forth by Gough and Tumner in 1986. They presented reading comprehension in terms of math. The Simple View of Reading states that Decoding X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension. Decoding is, simply, your ability to look at printed text and read the written words. Language comprehension is your ability to understand language—this is not bound by written text. For me, the key part of the Simple View is that it is a multiplication problem.
Think about multiplication. Anything times 0 is 0. For our purposes, this means that if you are missing decoding skills, you cannot achieve reading comprehension. Likewise, if you are missing the language component piece, you do not have reading comprehension. How many times have we heard of “word callers?” Students who can read anything, but don’t understand what they are reading? They are missing language comprehension. Likewise, what about a student who is well-spoken and can understand every single read-aloud question? They are suffering in the decoding area. If a student excels in one area, but is weak in another, reading comprehension will suffer. If a child struggles with both areas, their reading difficulties will be even greater.
Another model that can help our understanding of the Science of Reading is Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Like the Simple View of Reading, the Reading Rope acknowledges that language comprehension and word recognition have to work together to create skilled readers. Even though the rope was officially published in 2001, it originated in 1992. This model of reading shows how readers move through time, from beginning to skilled readers.
One of the main reasons I love the Reading Rope is because it shows what reading looks like in the beginning, and not just the end product or a fixed moment in time. Language comprehension and word recognition are initially developing independently. When you push for children to read “authentic” texts (e.g. leveled texts) in the early stages, it is unnecessary and can be detrimental to the reading process. In the beginning, children need to read texts where they can practice their knowledge of the alphabetic principle and sound-symbol correspondence. If a child is only asked to read leveled texts, especially as beginning readers, the word recognition component is muddled because these texts offer no systematic way to teach phonics and have students practice decoding skills. Instead, we should build their language comprehension by sharing authentic texts as read-alouds (and of course holding authentic conversations with children), and then build word recognition through decodable texts, phonological awareness, and orthographic mapping activities. Eventually, the word recognition skills and the oral language skills will begin to fuse together and students will read and understand more complicated texts. Every strand has to work together because if any frays, the end goal of skilled reading may never be achieved.
Why the Science of Reading is still unknown
The Science of Reading is not making it into classrooms for a variety of reasons. One reason is that teachers simply don’t have access to the research journals. Teachers struggle to make sure their children have the supplies they need: we don’t have extra money laying around to buy subscriptions to research journals. I wanted to read an article to help write this post, but my cheapest option was 24-hour access to the article online for $7. If I wanted to download the actual article, it was $42. Researchers and authors deserve to be paid for their work, but teachers just don’t have that kind of cash.
Let’s say my rich uncle left me with enough money that I can start buying all the research articles. That’s great, but where’s the time? It just isn’t feasible for a teacher to be expected to keep up with it. These articles are often filled with technical jargon that is difficult to wade through and understand. Even if I COULD afford it and even if I DID have the time, chances are I wouldn’t understand everything shared in the research. I was never taught effect sizes or statistical variability (is that a research term? It seems like a research term). My courses did not place a heavy focus on seeking out and analyzing scientific research. Until I have a better understanding of how to interpret the research and am likewise able to access it, I have to rely on others to understand it. I’m not ashamed to say that I haven’t personally read all the research on the Science of Reading. It’s an impossible task to place on teachers. Luckily, there are amazing authors like David Kilpatrick and Louisa Moats who are helping make that knowledge accessible to educators. I will have links to their texts below.
The problem, though, goes beyond access to research journals. In my opinion, the main reason that Balanced Literacy is still holding strong and the Science of Reading is in the background is that too many people have made their careers off of ineffective practices. Guided Reading, leveled texts, and Balanced Literacy are BIG, BIG, business. When you think about the models that we have looked at—the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope—do you see a place for these practices? We know that children need oral language skills and decoding opportunities. Systematic, sequential, explicit instruction is key to eliminating reading difficulties and creating readers. Balanced Literacy and Guided Reading simply do not contain the components of instruction that we now know most children must have in order to be successful. But Guided Reading is a multi-million, if not billion, dollar industry that huge publishing companies are not willing to give up. I recently even heard of one such company calling the Science of Reading a “theory.” Because of the enormous amount of money involved, publishing companies will continue to push and sell these practices that are ineffective for most of our children at best, and damaging at their worst.
What can we do?
I sometimes get overwhelmed with all there is to understand about the Science of Reading. I’m lucky to live in a county where it is embraced, and I still find myself on the other side of a lot of literacy conversations. I can’t imagine how lonely it would be to work somewhere where I was the only teacher fighting for the science to be heard. If this is you, the best thing you can do is surround yourself (even if it is virtually), with others who are like minded. I will list some Facebook groups and Instagram accounts below that are devoted to sharing this knowledge. Yes, the internet is filled with misinformation and, frankly, bad practices, but now we know that major publishing companies are, too. I promise the groups and people I lead you to are rooted in the research.
Please don’t feel like you need to read every piece of research out there. Try picking up Kilpatrick or Moats, because they do fantastic jobs of reading and explaining it for us. You do not have to overhaul everything overnight. Instead, start small. Try to eliminate one practice that you know isn’t reaching all of your children, and replace it with a strategy supported by the science. One option could be eliminating leveled texts for your lowest readers and replacing it with decodable texts. Another way to start small is by throwing away your cueing strategy cards and replacing it with phonics-based decoding strategies. You could also start by adding some phonemic awareness activities into your daily routine.
Never forget, you’re not alone in this. You have me, you have so many others, and you have science standing behind you. I do not believe there is a Reading War that we have to win. Instead, there is science, and whether or not you have been given the tools to understand it and implement the practices supported by that science. In the end, there is not a single publishing company that will be able to withstand the might of a teacher community armed with knowledge. Knowledgeable teachers will be the ones who change this narrative.
- Emily Hanford’s “At a Loss for Words.” An excellent article that discusses what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it.
- David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success. Please buy directly from the website. On Amazon, it is not the company selling it!
- David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. This is the book I referenced in my post.
- Louisa Moat’s Speech to Print
- Campbell Creates Readers (Sorry for the shameless plug.)
- Science of Reading: What I should have learned in college. Over 70k members!
- Gough, P.B. & Tumner, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10.
- Hejtmanek, D. (August 15, 2020). Q&A with Hollis Scarborough. [Video]. You Tube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83tfzOFpBak&feature=youtu.be
- Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. John Wiley & Sons.
- Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford Press.